The Mighty Quinn

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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Benjamin Kerstein, a Tel Aviv-based writer who is the author of new dystopian satire, The Mighty Quinn.

FP: Benjamin Kerstein, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Tell us about your new novel and what inspired you to write it.

Kerstein: Thanks Jamie.

As in all things, there are long and short answers to that one. The short answer is the joke I told people the whole time I was writing the book: It’s Moby Dick in reverse, with Ahab hunting the whalers instead of the whale.

The long answer is that it’s a dystopian satire of environmentalism and just about everything that goes along with it. The story involves a legendary eco-terrorist (the Quinn of the title) who takes a bunch of young activists down to the Antarctica to disrupt the activities of Japanese whaling vessels (this is one of the only things in the book I didn’t make up, such voyages actually happen). Among the passengers is the book’s narrator, who hopes that the trip will give his life some transcendent meaning. Along the way, it becomes clear that Quinn is not only a charismatic and inspiring idealist but also a megalomaniacal psychopath. Ultimately, this leads to a horrendous and violent tragedy. To say a great deal more would give away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that by the end of the story the narrator rebels against Quinn and things get very ugly indeed.

I agree with Orwell’s observation that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery.” So all I can really say as to my motivation for writing the book is that I felt there were things that needed to be said that no one else seemed to be saying.

There was also the simple fact that I felt I had a good idea on my hands. Those are few and far between and you can’t afford to give them up.

FP: Share your thoughts with us on the Left’s stranglehold on our culture. What effect has it had on English-language literature and film?

Kerstein: Enormously detrimental and getting worse all the time. For me, the worst aspect of it is not political, but aesthetic. It’s led to a lot of extremely bad books and movies and to a general malaise of Anglo-American art, especially literature.

In a sense, the cinema has it a bit easier, because there is always the popular audience to appeal to, so films that the establishment hates can still become a success. 300 is a terrific example of that. There you had a flawed but nonetheless powerful and original work of cinema—particularly on the purely visual level, which is what cinema is all about, after all—and the critics absolutely loathed it.

At the same time, films like American Beauty, which aren’t really movies at all but illustrated teach-ins, garner acclaim and Academy Awards. What this leads to is that more serious-minded English-language films have become basically unwatchable, and the most interesting and exciting movies today tend to be populist entertainments. Personally, I don’t think this is a good thing. There should be a place for serious cinema in the United States and there isn’t one right now.

In literature, however, the effect has been absolutely devastating. Literature is much more of an elite interest, and the critical establishment holds immense influence not only over what gets read but also what gets published in the first place. Quite frankly, American literature today is a wasteland. The only serious “literary” writer worth reading is Bret Easton Ellis, and even he is on a bit of a downward slide. There are some interesting things going on in genre literature (William Gibson, for example) and in non-fiction, but in mainstream literature there’s nothing. If you look at who the revered writers are today, it’s quite disturbing. Writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DiLillo, and Jonathan Franzen aren’t just bad writers, they’re unreadable. Franzen in particular is just horrendous. His prose physically hurts me. I suppose David Foster Wallace was the great white hope before his suicide, but frankly his non-fiction was far superior to his fiction and I think he knew it.

There is a political aspect to this, obviously, in that the writers the establishment champions tend to be quite politically correct. But really it comes down to the fact that very liberal politics are part and parcel of an entire culture that also includes aesthetic and cultural elements. This isn’t to say that everything the establishment does is bad. It did give the Anglophone world the gift of Roberto Bolano, after all. But for the most part the critical establishment has made a desert and called it literature.

FP: Any literature circulating out there right now posing a threat to the assumptions of the leftist cultural establishment?

Kerstein: I think there is. It isn’t a movement per se, but there are various writers around the world who are producing extraordinary work, and work that is very much about the world as it is right now, which is really the only fit subject for literature. I think the great advantage literature has over cinema is its immediacy. A film takes years to make, but a novel can be written in a matter of months, if the writer is of a mind to do it.

I’ve mentioned Bret Easton Ellis already, and I think American Psycho is probably the best American novel of the last thirty years (and it’s not a coincidence that it almost wasn’t published), but there are others like the late J.G. Ballard in England, Michel Houellebecq in France, or Victor Pelevin in Russia, who is part of an entire tend of Russian post-modernists who are trying to wrap their heads around the fall of communism and the upheavals of post-Cold War Russia. I would have said Chuck Palahniuk as well, and Fight Club is an extraordinary novel, far superior to the film, but I think he’s unfortunately descended into being purely a shock writer without a great deal of insight.

I think this does add up to a kind of shadow literature because all of these writers share one thing of immense importance: A critical attitude toward establishment assumptions about the world we live in today.

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  • tarleton

    With enviromentalism we are witnessing the rise of another substitute religion after the failiure of communism , nazism and fascism….all have been a direct result of the undermining and collapse of Christianity in europe
    Enviromentalism is a return to pre christian paganism/deism in a high tech form or animism dressed up in modern clothes, with it's high priests , prophets, vision of the apocalypse and ''holy symbols''
    I's not coincidence that many former Leftists/comms have morphed into ''greens'' as it's a form of idealistic socialism of the animal world …it's no longer ''all people are equal '' but all ''animal life is equal''…an ironic return of Orwell's ANIMAL FARM

  • tarleton

    If communism was a secular ''religion '' of class , then Nazism was heresy of race …a kind of socialism/equality of race instead of class …instead of a socialist utopia , they were promising a ''volksgemeinshaft'' racial utopia
    The Nazis were the first serious enviromentalists in Europe with their anti smoking laws , protection of animals and ''respect '' for nature and the great outdoors
    Try watching the most popular movie in germany , ''sound of music'' through nazi eyes …Hitler and Goebbles would have loved it

  • tarleton

    Communism / Nazism and their postmodern stepchild Enviromentalism are inexplicable except as substitute/secular religions
    Enviromentalism is a kind of hybrid or mutation of both…the neo paganism of nazism and the anti capitalism of communism… producing a kind of watermellons that are green on the exterior and red/socialist inside

  • mar

    Have mercy on me and consider once again what you know about american literature, for God's sake!

  • tarleton

    F- you jamie …what's wrong with my comments ?

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  • tarleton

    Communism was a secular religion of class …Nazism was a socialist heresy , with an emphasis on race instead of class …both were trying to create a socialist utopia
    The socialist utopia was communism …the nazi was volkgemeinshaft
    The modern enviromentalist movement is a hybrid/mutation of both…the neo paganism of nazism (minus the discredited racism) and the statism /anti capitalism of communism

  • keoke888

    When I was a little kid, my mother spent some time around Earth First!, I learned very quickly that they were projecting their personal issues onto the world around them, and art (and everything else about a person) reflects their level of psychological development.

  • Chezwick_mac

    Fascinating discourse. Kerstein is quite right to warn us that it is wrong to define the left as "nihilist". They may have completely abdicated certain moral conventions, but they have their own sense of morality…and it borders on the rabid.

    What I found most depressing is that even for a man as obviously intelligent and sensible as Kerstein, it wasn't until the "second intifada" (2000) that he finally divorced himself from the left. What took him so long? He's not just emerging from adolescence.

    The long and the short of it is that Marxism (and psuedo-Marxism) is powerfully evocative…and, as we've seen time and again from academe, even the most intellectually discriminating minds can be seduced by it.

    God help us.